This is a quote from Joss Whedon, a writer, director, composer, and the crowned “Lord of the Nerds”. He is behind some of the biggest movie and TV franchises of all time (he directed The Avengers and created Buffy the Vampire Slayer), with several of his works developing dedicated cult followings. This is a striking quote that caused a lot of fans anticipating The Avenger‘s sequel to raise an eyebrow, and anyone whose watched Buffy, Angel, or some of his other shows should already have had some inclination that this was his mindset when it comes to creating stories. He kills character we love, he builds up hope for a certain thing to happen with the sole intent of shattering it, and he does not always provide us with happy endings. The most common criticism against Whedon is that he ventures too often into dark territory. That he relishes in cruelty for cruelty’s sake, and loves to punish his audience for loving his characters. I would argue that Whedon is doing the opposite of that, and that suffering is the key element in every story. By forcing characters to go through despair, he connects us with their world. Whedon isn’t punishing us for liking his characters, he is connecting the audience to their lives by sharing the most intimate thing they have: Their pain.
Let’s talk about what makes a story a story, the one thing that makes comedy, action, drama, romance, and sci-fi into what they are. That element is suffering. Comedy is based on the pain and mental anguish of others, towards varying degrees of course. The Road Runner cartoon would not be funny if every attempt to kill the bird did not backfire horribly for Wile E. Coyote, and Parks and Recreation‘s laughs are wholly dependent on the adorable flaws of the main cast who constantly have to deal with generally unintelligent town’s people. Our laughs come from their pain, even if comedy is generally more complex than that, that is what it is at its basest level. Action movies are obviously fueled by our desire to see people getting hurt in elaborate sequences, and romance films are held together by people going through emotional turmoil. If a couple meets and fall in love with each other without pause or difficulty, then that is just a boring story a couple tells their friends about how they got together; it is not something worthy of being told to an audience. The same can be said about dramatic works or any other genre, because if there wasn’t any amount of suffering, then there isn’t any amount of pay off in turn. You can have a story that ends in complete despair be good, but you absolutely cannot have a good story that does not have some sort of challenge to overcome. A good story needs people to hope for something, if everything is fine and there is no challenge to overcome, then that story is hopeless; and that is far more depressing than any tragedy.
What makes the darkness in Joss Whedon’s work so effective is that he is very good at building up hope for the viewers first. I am far more affected by the horrible things that happen in his stories than I am from things that happen in say, The Walking Dead (which I hear has only now gotten good). When a relentlessly dark show like that throws tragedy in your face, it doesn’t leave a strong impact because it’s just another thing that went wrong in a world where characters are becoming increasingly nihilistic. What Whedon does for his stories is he builds up a sense of security, happiness, and ambition. He gives us something to look forward to for his characters and when that is cruelly taken from them we can almost feel their pain, and as a result, we feel closer to them. It also creates a stepping stone to something even greater. The challenges the heroes overcome mean so much more with the despair they had to face to topple them. Hope is created because characters need to want something for us to care about them, when that hope is shattered we feel their despair, and when they overcome that despair that hope returns stronger than before (or if they fail, then the despair overcomes them). Essentially, hope acts as a stepping stone to despair, which in turn acts as a stepping stone to an even greater hope, which makes the audience feel that much more strongly about the story that is being told. Whedon understands this so, so well.
I disagree with critics who state Whedon has an arbitrary fixation on suffering. He’s right, suffering is why we go to see movies, and I’d go further to say that it’s also why we read books, watch TV shows, and create stories ourselves. We all want to experience the pain of others because it helps us understand ourselves better, because it’s the only thing we can universally relate to in this world; not everyone experiences love, but we all have to go through pain. Whedon isn’t addicted to pain, he’s mastered it; he understands what people want in the stories they experience even if they themselves don’t fully grasp it, and that’s why his work is so engaging. Joss Whedon shows us that to understand storytelling, we not only have to accept suffering, but to also use it in its entirety. People waiting to watch Age of Ultron have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Quote of the Day:
“Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.”
– Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
NOTE: My previous post, that also deals with a Whedon work, has been updated and improved. Check it out if you’re interested.